Republicans Target Utility Fighter CUB
Proposal would kill funding for Citizen’s Utility Board, which advocates for consumers.
Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission will be making decisions that could cost utility customers billions of dollars over the next few years, which is why Democratic legislators insist it’s the wrong time to cripple the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) created to advocate for individuals and small businesses served by public utilities.
Republicans members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) recommended that the Legislature eliminate a $300,000 annual subsidy given CUB since 2009. JFC also wants to require CUB and citizens groups to pay half of costs of experts who testify in pending decisions; now, CUB and citizens groups are reimbursed at 100 percent of expert-witness costs approved by the PSC.
Those changes would save utility customers about $1.3 million over the next two years – a “win” for them, JFC Co-Chairman Rep. John Nygren said before the committee’s April 15 vote.
But Democrats are angry, citing these pending – or soon to be pending – major PSC decisions:
*The request by Wisconsin Energy Corporation, the parent company of Milwaukee-based We Energies, to acquire Integrys Energy Group, the parent company of Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, for $9.1 billion. If approved, We Energies says it would have 4.3 million customers in four states. The PSC endorsed the merger last week.
*Requests by the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation for a 9.4 percent electric rate increase that would cost customers $94.1 million, starting in January, and permission to build a $517-million power plant.
*Wisconsin Power and Light/Alliant Energy’s plan for a new generating plant near Beloit at an estimated cost of between $725 million and $775 million. The company wants to start construction next year, so the plant can be on line by 2019.
*The plan of American Transmission Company (ATC) for a new 125-mile transmission line between Dubuque, Iowa, and the Madison suburb of Middleton. ATC’s initial estimate of its cost is $450 million.
In a WisconsinEye interview, CUB Executive Director Kira Loehr said the group’s advocacy saved $161 million for electricity customers last year alone. She said that was the difference between the original rate increases requested by utilities and PSC’s final decisions.
The non-profit CUB has four staff members and an annual budget of about $771,000, which makes it a “bargain you can’t get anywhere else,” Loehr added. Since 2008, she said, CUB has helped reduce consumers’ utility bills by almost $3 billion.
But the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is lobbying legislators to keep the changes recommended by the Finance Committee.
CUB is “one voice in a number of groups” with a stake in the future costs of energy, Baas said. Either give all those groups – including chambers of commerce, clean-energy groups and MMAC – subsidies like CUB, or have state government stop “picking and choosing winners,” Baas said.
The changes recommended by the Finance Committee are the fairest options to all parties, Baas added. In December, the PSC itself recommended that CUB continue to get $300,000 per year. In that official finding, the three PSC commissioners – two Republicans and a Democrat – praised CUB, saying:
“CUB is one of the Commission’s most active intervenors, providing professionalism to all the cases in which it participates. Equally, as a grant recipient, CUB has been forthcoming, prudent and worthy of this nominal award, and the benefits of this grant can be shown in the increased and beneficial participation of CUB in Commission cases since 2011.”
Whether CUB should get $300,000 in the future, and any limits on reimbursements for expert witnesses by groups participating in PSC cases, are “policy” decisions for the Legislature and governor – and not PSC – to make, said PSC spokesman Nathan Conrad.
JFC Co-Chair Sen. Alberta Darling and Baas both said requiring intervening groups to pay half of the costs of expert witnesses in pending PSC cases means they must have “skin in the game” and not just spend unlimited amounts of someone else’s money.
But one Finance Committee Democrat, Rep. Chris Taylor, called punishing CUB for its past advocacy the latest example of Republicans “shooting the messenger.”